What you should know about the 1,500 ‘missing’ immigrant children

It might actually be a good thing the government isn't keeping tabs on them.

What you should know about the "missing" immigrant children
What you should know about the "missing" undocumented immigrant children. (CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images)

A New York Times article published in late April began recirculating the internet last week, which noted that federal agencies had placed roughly 1,500 immigrant children with sponsors, but had lost track of them or were not up to date on their whereabouts.

Although the Times article did not report the children as “missing,” its sudden popularity sparked a growing campaign on social media to “find” them anyway, prompting the hashtag #WhereAreTheChildren.

The campaign was buoyed in the media by pundits and politicians alike.

“It is unspeakably cruel. The parents are coming with their children because they are trying to escape some horror, they are coming to save their kids and their children are being torn away,” former Hillary Clinton campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle said, during a CNN panel on Sunday. “Now we are finding that our government has lost these children? Where are the kids? As a mom, I just can’t think about a child, a 4-year-old in a different country with strangers and now vulnerable to human trafficking and abuse… and there is nothing that these parents can do.”

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The #WhereAreTheChildren hashtag, ironically enough, was also used by President Trump’s supporters to exonerate him for implementing an immigration policy that would separate families detained at the border. Parents would be sent to criminal detention facilities, but because children cannot be sent to those facilities, they are sent to separate detention facilities and are deemed “unaccompanied minors.”

As some immigration experts have pointed out in recent days, however, these are two separate issues that are messy and complicated in their own ways. Others have even argued that the government deciding not to track thousands of immigrant children might actually be a good thing.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), a subset of the Department Health and Human Services (HHS), was in charge of the “missing” children. As previously noted, however, those children were not ripped from their families at the border, but rather arrived in the United States unaccompanied.

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According to HHS, when children cross into the United States by themselves, their custody is transferred from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to ORR. These children are then released to a sponsor in the United States who is a close family member of the child (this occurs about 85 percent of the time), and the remainder are released to distant relatives or someone unrelated to the child who is still capable of acting as a sponsor. All sponsors undergo background checks and are approved by ORR.

After children are released to their sponsors, they are no longer the responsibility of the federal government — which is a good thing, some immigration advocates say, considering Trump’s hostility towards undocumented immigrants and his stance on immigration more generally.

ORR’s sole obligation is to conduct a cursory wellness call to the child’s sponsor, which is where the Times article comes into play. From October 2017 to the end of the year, ORR officials attempted to tried to reach 7,635 children and their sponsors, according to the Times report. From those calls, officials learned that 6,075 children remained with their sponsors, 28 had run away, five had been removed from the United States, and 52 had relocated to live with a non-sponsor. A remaining 1,475 children, however, were unaccounted for, but not necessarily flagged as missing.

As some immigration attorneys and experts have pointed out, the sponsors likely missed the phone call from ORR. In the case of children living in the country with extended family, it’s also possible the sponsor chose not to further interact with immigration officials out of fear of the child’s safety or ability to remain in the United States.

While it could be argued that the government has a duty to maintain up to date records on children processed through its systems, the ORR says they are not “legally responsible for the children” — they don’t track children after they are released, since the children have been released into approved homes.

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With the Trump administration instituting draconian immigration policies, it’s understandable to see how “missing” children may raise red flags. But while most of the president’s policies can be considered abhorrent and cruel, fear should not be used to justify increased surveillance on undocumented minors hoping to remain in the country free of harassment.